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Special teams savor stability for now

Posted Mar 5, 2014

With free agency starting Saturday and the campus workouts piling up in the run-up to the draft, we’re taking a look at the depth chart of the three units. It started with Monday’s look at the defense and Tuesday’s breakdown of the offense and now Wednesday is reserved for special teams, always the most volatile of phases even in the most tranquil of times.

Welcome to Tranquility Base. But as special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons says, “Ask me before week one,” after the roster has been made in training camp in response to the draft, position competition, and injuries.

Except for free-agent returner Brandon Tate, the Bengals have every key player under contract from a special teams unit that finished six points out of the top 10 in a compilation of the league's 10 major special teams categories.

Compare that to last season at this time when the Bengals’ No. 1 unit in the NFL top 10 had none of their three specialists under contract, not to mention their two top returners, two leading tacklers, and captain.

“If you’re building a house, at least we’ve got the materials,” Simmons says. “(Last year) I didn’t know if we had any wood or nails. Last year was like we had a tornado.”

But with a flurry of re-signings and the emergence of a couple of rookies, the new faces teamed with the staples for a No. 12 ranking in a season that was headed to the top five until punter Kevin Huber suffered a season-ending broken jaw with two-and-a-half games left in the regular season.

(Denotes how many players the Bengals project to keep at this position on the 53-man roster and years of experience in 2014)

SPECIALISTS (3)

Punter: Kevin Huber (6)

Huber, who signed a long-term deal last March after having the greatest season ever by a Bengals punter when it comes to gross and net yards, may have had a better year this season before getting hurt. He had a slew of huge fourth-quarter punts that led to wins and his 40.5-yard average was eighth best in the league as he helped steer a new group to a top ten net finish in punt coverage.

“I pulled the reins back on him. I asked him to do a lot of different things,” Simmons says. “Because we had so many new faces, we asked him to put more balls out of bounds. I asked him to limit the touches for the returners and he became a much more effective and consistent directional punter.”

There are no signs that Huber’s off-season approach has been hampered by the injury. He had said he expected to be back punting in late March, when he usually begins his regimen.

Kicker: Mike Nugent (10)

Nugent just turned 32 but he’s on his best run ever as a pro as he heads into his fifth season as a Bengal. Just 11 days after he hit a 54-yarder at the gun for a win in Detroit to tie the club-record for the longest winning field goal, he hit another 54-yarder in Miami that put the Bengals ahead with 1:24 left before the Dolphins came back to win in overtime.

Another one of his league-low 22 field-goal attempts came from 43 yards out to end an overtime win in Buffalo.

“Mike didn’t get a lot of opportunities, but when he did he was clutch,” Simmons says. “When it comes to kicking in the clutch, we’re obviously glad he’s on our side.”

But Simmons is expecting more than that 81.8 percentage (18-for-22), just 23rd in the NFL.

“Mike will be the first one to tell you he has to kick the ball better. In order to be great in this league, you can’t miss a field goal,” he says. “The standard around the league in terms of field-goal kicking has been driven up. It’s astronomical.”

Long snapper: Clark Harris (6)

And the beat goes on, now at 702 straight playable snaps on 373 punts (with four punters) and 329 place kicks (with five kickers) since Harris arrived 75 games ago in October of 2009.

“Solid,” Simmons says.

PUNT RETURNERS (1)

Starter: WR Brandon Tate (6)

Backups: CB Adam Jones (8), WR Dane Sanzenbacher (4).

Free agents: Tate (unrestricted), Sanzenbacher (restricted)

They’d like to do what they did last year and re-sign Tate in free agency. A wide receiver plucked off waivers from New England on the eve of the 2011 season, Tate has turned into one of the most reliable and clutch return men in Bengals history while doing both punts and kicks.

Tate may not be spectacular, but he hardly ever puts the ball on the floor and he’s helped win a bunch of games, including last year in Buffalo when his 29-yard return in OT set up Nugent’s winner. And in Cincinnati in the second half of a game the Bengals had to fend off Andrew Luck, Tate’s back—to-back punt returns of 19 and season-long 43 yards cooled off  the Colts. With 108, only Mike Martin and Leapin’ Lemar Parrish have more punt returns in franchise history than Tate.

After finishing 2011 and 2012 seventh in punt returns each year in the NFL, the Bengals dipped to 15th last season. But Simmons doesn’t blame Tate and points to the 11 penalties that were called on returns, in part because of a new cast that wasn’t always in proper position.

Simmons would always love to get Jones back there to return, but here’s where the uncertainty of teams comes in. Because of injuries to others, Jones has started 25 games in the last three years and when he’s not starting, he’s playing on third down. Sanzenbacher was inactive much of the stretch run, so it’s pretty much been Tate’s show.

KICKOFF RETURNS (1)

Starter: Tate

Backups: Sanzenbacher, RB Cedric Peerman (5)

The Bengals figure a player’s return ability into his draft grade, so that’s always on the table. Running back Giovani Bernard is a potential kick returner, but that’s not why they drafted him and now he’s the starter so it wouldn’t hurt to try and get some depth.

But Simmons also covets Tate’s reliability.

“We all want to be more explosive and more dynamic,” Simmons says. “But be careful. Brandon has been a guy that’s been very reliable and very effective for us. When you look at our return situation now in comparison to others around the league, we’re not far off from where we want to be as some may think.”

Behind Tate, the Bengals quietly finished fifth in the NFL returning kicks.

CAPTAINS (2)

RB Cedric Peerman (5), LB Vincent Rey (4)

Free agents: Rey (restricted)

Peerman is under contract for another year after he finished playing quarterback of the special teams with 10 tackles, fourth most on the team. In addition to being the personal punt protector, he plays the most important position on the kick cover team as the rover that lines up next to Nugent. He also lines up in the middle of punt return and is the off returner in front of Tate when teams kick to the Bengals.

“Cedric Peerman is essential. Every spot he plays is essential,” Simmons says.

The Bengals tendered both Sanzenbacher and Rey Wednesday, so both figure to be back in restricted free agency. But Rey is a good case study on how Simmons is always adjusting, even in the good times. With Rey kicked into the regular lineup because of injuries the last half of the season, Simmons had to pull back one of his core players, and Rey still finished third in teams tackles with 11, one off his career best.

Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, another restricted free agent that was tendered Wednesday, is in a similar boat. The fleet 5-7, 180-pound Hawkins can be a demon on teams, particularly covering punts at gunner. But when he emerged as the third receiver in 2012, his teams snaps got cut back. When he came back from an injured foot last season in the middle of the year, Simmons noticed he never quite regained the spot in the offense he had the year before and used him more. Now that Hawkins is healthy again, Simmons knows he may have to cut him back again.

“I know this,” Simmons says. “I’ll go to war with both Hawk and Vinny.”

LEADING TACKLERS

S Shawn Williams (2), LB Jayson DiManche (2)

After Williams, a third-rounder from Georgia, racked up a team-high 14 tackles, Simmons says he has a chance “to be a dynamic player on teams.” His rookie year included a blocked punt against the Browns and some big blocks for Tate when the punts did get off.

POSITION WATCH

Backup cornerback: Dre Kirkpatrick, Brandon Ghee, Chris Lewis-Harris.

Free agents: Brandon Ghee

“We need more consistent play from our backup cornerbacks,” Simmons says. “It’s been a revolving door because of injury, but we need more from the third and fourth corners.”

Ghee was active in the last nine games, but had just one tackle on teams. Dre Kirkpatrick, a steady gunner on punt coverage before injuries descended on the secondary, saw his role change when he started the last three games in place of the injured Terence Newman. Simmons isn’t sure how that is going to play out this year as Leon Hall comes back from his second torn Achilles in three years and the 35-year-old Newman comes back from a sprained knee.

“When Dre was playing, he did some good things as a gunner, but he has to play better in other phases,” Simmons says. “He’s done a nice job for us, but I don’t know what his role will be. It’s fluid.”

Just another day in the offseason for a special teams coordinator. The May 8-10 draft is fluid, too, but Simmons knows one thing. He’ll again be asked to take some of those draft picks and put them into the mix right away.

 

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